Drawing the line at Ned Kelly

By Legal Eagle

Bizarre factoid for a Friday: men who are tattooed with Ned Kelly are more likely to be killed or kill themselves. For non-Australian readers, Ned Kelly is a famous Australian bushranger (highwayman) who wore homemade plate armour and was hanged in Melbourne after he was captured in a police siege in Glenrowan.

The Daily Mail reports:

The life of outlaw Ned Kelly ended abruptly when he was sent to the gallows for his crimes – and now it appears he is still something of a curse more than 130 years after he went to his grave.
An extraordinary study has found that people with tattoos of the Irish-Australian criminal, who is seen by some as a freedom-fighting folk hero, are more likely to be murdered or kill themselves. The tattoos of the highwayman, who was hung in Melbourne in 1880 for the murder of three policemen, are more common on those who have met a violent death.

The comparison between murder, suicide and Ned Kelly tattoos was made by Adelaide University Professor Roger Byard. He looked into the cause of death of 20 Australian men, aged between 20 and 67, who had tattoos of Ned Kelly’s face or name. He began looking into the phenomenon after seeing there were an unusually high number of Kelly tattoos on bodies in the Adelaide mortuary. Of the 20 men with Ned Kelly tattoos that the professor studied, only three had died from natural causes – the rest were murdered or killed themselves. He also found that 11 of the 20 Kelly enthusiasts also had signs of drug and alcohol abuse.

Professor Byard wrote in a paper for the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine: ‘Although the population studied is highly selected, individuals with these tattoos had an above average incidence of traumatic deaths. Individuals with Ned Kelly tattoos in this series certainly had an above-average incidence of traumatic deaths compared to other forensic cases. Ironically this was also a feature of the ill-fated members of the Kelly Gang, whose leader is commemorated in these designs.’

Interesting, isn’t it? Luckily I don’t have any tattoos of Ned Kelly. I hope you don’t either… Have a look at the article, there’s some interesting Ned tattoos there.


  1. Henry2
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Gday Folks,

    ‘Poor Ned your better off Dead’
    I dont actually think this is an ‘extraordinary study’. I think that in fact it is a very ordinary study.
    The first problem I have with it is one of recognition. A Ned Kelly tat is pretty obvious especially in armour and especially obvious to Australians. I wonder if the Professor would have noticed if there were a great number of tattoos of young black men in bandanas and if he had, whether he would have recognised Tupac Shakur if he did. I for one would be very surprised if there werent a lot of Tupac tats on mortuary slabs as well, for similar reasons.
    The second thing that brings this study into question is the sample. Without knowing exactly how many Ned Kelly tattoos are on bodies out there, how can you draw a link between a Ned tat and relative risk of violent death?
    Tattoos have become far more popular in recent years. I would suggest that a study into tattooing practise would show far more younger people with tats than older people and this would also carry through in an all male sample.
    If young men are dead on a mortuary slab, the death is probably more likely to be violent, Kelly tat or no Kelly tat.

    Just some thoughts,


  2. Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Without taking from the Ned legend, or the appeal of a Ned tat (presumably in his bucket helmet), the wearers I’m sure would be far more likely than average to be bikers, bogans, or generally males with a bit of a rebel complex. The point about Tupac is apposite.

  3. kvd
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    So, one hopes the police are pursuing their hunts for a murderer or murderers with a violent dislike for the works of Sidney Nolan. But the good news from the Daily Mail article was that 9 of the 20 cases “studied” showed no signs of drug or alcohol abuse, so maybe Ned could be invoked by our nanny state in that cause?

  4. Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Now we need a study of protective tattoos. I imagine geek ones (mandelbrot sets, formulae, tux the penguin) as well as cutesy ones (butterflies) could be rarely found in the violently dead compared to the tattoed population – enough perhaps even to make a statistically valid claim they work as a good luck charm.

    I’d reckon that those with dashes and “cut here” around the neck would be even more over-represented in the violently dead tattooed v tattooed populations.

    You’ve also got the idea (common in WW2) that is there is a good chance of being blown to bits, readily identifiable tattoos can make it easier to figure out who has died – and ned kelly ones are distinctive enough, even in small pieces, to assist. So the distinctive tatts may have been chosen beforehand for this purpose.

  5. kvd
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Searching Google News for ‘tattoos Ned kelly’ shows first Discovery News and Adelaide Now, then a bit later Daily Mail, Irish Central, Times of India, then a whole centipede of also rans. I expect tomorrow’s Age and SMH will feature it prominently.

    Good to see where our new news comes from

  6. Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Ah yes, but remember Leviticus 19:28:

    Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD

    which this guy seems to have not considered.

  7. Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Small and almost trivial linguistic point but I think “was hung” in the post should be “was hanged.” The judge never says/said “you shall be hung by the neck until [etc: I’m too squeamish to continue].”

  8. Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    So, one hopes the police are pursuing their hunts for a murderer or murderers with a violent dislike for the works of Sidney Nolan.

    They’ll never take me alive, KVD. 😉

  9. Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    N=20. That is all.

  10. Posted June 18, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    [email protected] – OMG, now I want to take an obscure bit of leviticus and bang on about in, calling others heathens who are all going to hell, yada yada yada.

    First time for everything I guess.

    I’m sure getting crucifixes tattooed over your carotid cuts down the risk of being bitten by vampires to zero.

  11. Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    My body art is generally considered more extreme – scarification. A reason many people with body art use is “it tells a story”.

    Yes, well, my body art tells a story or two, I’d be readily identifiable without a head unless the only thing remaining was my left leg, (a skull x-ray, or dissection report of a body after all skin burnt off would allow anyone in family and many friends to ID me too) but I’m not the author of the story told by the body “art” – it’s a documentary, not fiction; a “found object” not a contrivance.

    The unadorned body, authored by fate, can tell a very detailed story. The bodies I’ve pulled apart told stories that tugged at my emotions, becoming aware of what they had endured. Even the dry bones in a case on one of my bookshelves tells me some feeling for the life the guy led – a life shorter than my own, one less privileged, from a family suffering hard times, evidenced if only by the fact his bones sit there.

    If the purpose of a tatt is to state an attitude (like Kelly-rebelliousness), then the life led, the behaviour evident to others, is surely more eloquent and meaningful.

    An actionable tattoo, one guiding others when you cannot speak, is another thing – a blood group, a note about a medical condition (such as “no anaesthetic, malignant hyperthermia”) or an instruction (“do not resuscitate” on one’s chest). These make options available, while most tatts limit them in one form or another.

    The lack of tatts is becoming, in the younger generation, as profound a statement as any tatt.

    I suppose “sleeves” and other in-your-face tatts might serve some useful purpose – they’ll make grumpy folk of my generation keep their distance.

    (I call my daughter, getting more and more of the things, a “barbarian”, or the synonymous “you look like a collingwood supporter”)

  12. Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    I have no tattoos. This no doubt marks me as an old (or, at least, middle aged) fogey.

    [email protected] I am a fan of Bones, so what you have to say about bodies telling stories familiar. (Recently bought a box set of first five seasons for $112!)

  13. Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    [email protected] In the spirit of Dr Temperance Brennan, something that is already zero cannot be further reduced to zero 🙂

    But I am a Buffy and Angel fan, so I laughed. (The vampire motif is very powerful, it is what makes the Wraith such great villains in Stargate: Atlantis.)

    One of the things that amuses me about the series Bones is that they are based on best-selling books by Kathy Reichs about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. So the TV series is about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan who writes best-selling books about forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs 🙂

  14. Posted June 19, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: On zero… Yes. You got my meaning.

    If there /was/ to be an interesting statistical study on tattoos, that might either put paid to my grumpy old man tattoo disdain, or confirm it, it’d be on tattoo prevalence across cultures and time. I reckon there’d be a correlation with war (the tatts for identification), but for classes without that need, it would correlate with barbarity or ignorance in the culture or the subgroup. I willing to be corrected.

  15. Patrick
    Posted June 19, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Damn, I’d already gone and tattooed all my kids with both Ned Kelly and Tupac…

  16. Posted June 19, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I don’t have any tattoos and don’t particularly like them either. I guess that means I’m destined to grow into a grumpy old man…

    it would correlate with barbarity or ignorance in the culture or the subgroup.

    I’d suggest it’d correlate with short term thinking, or a strong need to symbolise identity (either because one feels a lack of identity, or one is forced to identify with a particular group or culture). Both factors which could be a consequence of barbarity or ignorance.

  17. Jacques Chester
    Posted June 20, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I have no tattoos. This no doubt marks me as an old (or, at least, middle aged) fogey.

    Fashionable tattooing is my generation’s flared jeans.

  18. Posted June 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    yes, [email protected], but one can remove flares at home without conc H2SO4 or potato peelers.

    still, it’ll help jobs in health industries – all those extra biopsies for women worried about breast cancer when they get shadows on axillary lymph nodes because the pigment in tattoos has been migrated by macrophages.

    I’d also recommend any folk with a predisposition to things like eczema or psoriasis should think thrice before getting tatts.

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